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Prepare for Safe, Healthy Winter

December 5, 2012

Helping older family members stay safe, secure and independent begins with preparation in the home.

The young and young-at-heart may delight at the thought of the arrival of cold, snowy weather, but the winter season brings a variety of special concerns and issues to light for the seniors in our lives. Proper preparation in advance, however, can help to ensure that the older members of our families and communities are safe and secure this winter.

Nearly one-third of adults age 65 and older falls each year, and some 2 million older Americans are seen in hospital emergency departments as a result of falls or fall-related injuries, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While avoiding falls is important for people of all ages, our seniors are most vulnerable to more significant consequences of a fall such as broken bones or a lasting injury either in the home or outdoors.

Snow and ice and other adverse weather conditions raise the risk of falls during the winter season. A simple precaution of wearing appropriate footwear - comfortable shoes with anti-slip soles - will help secure footing on icy or snowy walks, stairs or driveways.

Falls also can occur indoors on rugs, staircases or a variety of other in-home locations. It is important to check where you regularly walk and be aware of any surfaces that may present a slip or fall risk. Be sure your rugs are flat and secure, especially since footwear in the winter tends to be a bit heavier and bulkier than in the warmer weather months.

Flu seasons are unpredictable and can be severe. If you haven't done so already, it is not too late to call your friends and family members to remind them to get a flu shot. The CDC recommends a yearly flu shot as the first and most important step in protecting against the flu virus. The CDC's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommends that everyone six months of age and older receive an annual flu shot. The shot helps to prevent the flu and protect against serious health problems. Thousands of people die each year from influenza and even more require hospitalizations. As we age, our immune system weakens and our ability to fight illness decreases. As a result, older adults are more vulnerable to catch influenza and its related complications, making influenza vaccination extremely important.

Getting a flu shot can help prevent complications in older adults and anyone with asthma, diabetes, anemia and other heart and lung problems. The shot does not cause the flu - it does not contain a live flu germ.

Even though the influenza viruses can be the same as the previous season, your immunity is gone and requires you to get a flu vaccination every year. Call your doctor today to discuss and schedule your flu shot. Flu shots are also available at pharmacies, retail clinics and schools.

I also recommend getting a pneumococcal (pneumonia) shot. Unlike the flu shot, which is different each year and is given before the start of the influenza season, the pneumococcal shot can be given at any time of the year. However, for convenience, the pneumococcal shot can be given at the same time as the flu shot. It is currently recommended that most adults will only need one dose of pneumococcal vaccine in their lifetime.

Together, influenza and pneumococcal disease are the most common causes of death in the United States from diseases that can be prevented by vaccines.

At this time of the year, it is also important for senior citizens to be protected from the cold temperatures. Every year, many elderly people die from hypothermia and exposure because our bodies are less able to protect us from dangerously cold weather if they have to be outdoors. Also, be sure furnaces and thermostats are in working order in the house as well.

Finally, diet and exercise should not be neglected during the winter months. While you may not want to venture outside for a walk, it is important to stay active with light exercises indoors. Simple lightweight exercises will help you to keep your legs and arms strong. And a strong mind and mental health acuity and one's physical health are inextricably related.

Because your health matters, I encourage you to make simple adjustments now to ensure you and the seniors in your life have a safe and healthy winter season.

Dr. Judith Black is the medical director for Senior Markets at Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield West Virginia.

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